What Is The Difference Between Telemedicine, Telecare, and Telehealth?

checkmark Fact checked Medically reviewed by: Dr. Utibe Effiong, Board Certified Internal Medicine Physician
Updated: May 16, 2021

 

Telemedicine and telehealth are often used interchangeably to describe how providers deliver care to patients remotely. There are other telehealth terms you’ve probably heard, such as virtual visits, e-visits, tele-counseling, or teletherapy.

If you’re not sure what telemedicine really means, you’re not alone. “There is a bit of confusion on the actual definition,” says Brian Skow, MD. Dr. Skow is the chief medical officer at Avera eCare, a 24/7 virtual hospital that supports more than 500 facilities, hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes in 36 states.

Telehealth over the years has evolved to include technology platforms like asynchronous and synchronous video calls, electronic medical records, patient/provider portals and good, old-fashioned phone calls. With that comes various types of digital care delivered in different, remote ways.

Are telehealth, telemedicine, and telecare the same thing?

Not exactly. And, depending on your situation, one type of tele- might be most effective. Let’s dig into what each tele- means, what to expect, and when telehealth is a beneficial way to get care.

What is Telehealth?

According to the American Academy of Family Practitioners (AAFP), telehealth is the broad category of electronic and telecommunications technologies and services used to provide care when patients and providers are in different sites. It’s the all-encompassing term for remote care.

Telehealth is more than a virtual video visit with a healthcare provider. Telehealth includes various digital health services, such as remote monitoring, video visits, telephone calls and online written communications.

It’s a broad term for “any way a provider and patient interact, from messaging in the patient portal to delivery of lab results and delivery of care, whether audio or video,” says Brian Zack, MD, medical director of telehealth at University Hospitals and a pediatrician at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s in Cleveland.

Dr. Skow points out that telehealth also includes patient and provider healthcare education, public health, and health administration. Telehealth is the digital care world, while telemedicine is the delivery of care via a remote experience with a provider.

What Is Telemedicine?

To keep it simple, Dr. Skow defines telemedicine as “the remote delivery of healthcare services.” Telemedicine is the encounter you have with a provider via video, telephone, or a remote monitoring device. “Telemedicine is the medical piece of telehealth,” he says.

Rafael E. Salazar II, the principal owner at Rehab U Practice Solutions, Augusta, Georgia, consults with healthcare organizations to help them adopt technologies and improve patient engagement. He explains to providers: “Telemedicine is any care delivered virtually in which the patient and provider are not in the same location.”

The AAFP differentiates telemedicine and telehealth this way: “Telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services, while telehealth can refer to remote non-clinical services.”

What Is Telecare?

Some providers use the word telecare to describe telehealth. Salazar says he has seen telecare used in marketing, but telehealth and telemedicine are the widely accepted terms for remote delivery of care.

Also, telecare can be a consumer term for all things care delivered by technology. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has this definition of telecare: “Telecare generally refers to technology that allows consumers to stay safe and independent in their homes.” That can include health and fitness apps, sensors, and tools that connect family members or other caregivers like medical alert systems and digital medication reminders.

When to Use Telehealth and Telemedicine

Telemedicine appointments offer a convenient, accessible way to receive care for various conditions, from dermatological concerns to follow-ups and pediatric virtual visits. Telemedicine is also effective for counseling services and behavioral health appointments with psychologists and psychiatrists.

Telemedicine also works for transactional visits, such as refilling prescriptions.

“It cuts through the noise and redundancy—if I need my doctor to fill a prescription, I send him a message and, boom, it’s in the pharmacy,” says Talya Miron-Shatz, Ph.D., a consultant, researcher of medical decision-making, and author of “Your Life Depends on It: What You Can Do to Make Better Choices About Your Health.”

Because of the accessibility and comfort of receiving care from home, some practitioners are seeing an increase in demand for services. “I have seen more people reaching out for support, and our practice has grown during the pandemic,” says Laura Goldstein, therapist and founder of the Montgomery County Counseling Center, Rockville, Maryland. “There has been less of a barrier for someone who might be anxious about being judged to show up online.”

Appointments with specialists can also be more accessible because location and transportation are not obstacles to telemedicine visits. “If you have a specialist who is hard to get into our region, and they have clinics on the east and west side of town, with telemedicine, who cares?” Dr. Zack relates. “Telemedicine opens doors for getting patients more efficient care.”

Telemedicine and telehealth are not always the answer, however. “It might not be the best way for an orthopedic surgeon to assess your hip if you need a hip replacement,” Dr. Zack points out, adding that visits, in general, might start virtually and lead to an in-person followup if a condition requires “hands-on.”

With that in mind, telehealth can at least augment the full spectrum of healthcare. These can include these virtual medical support services:

  • Behavioral health
  • Correction health (prison)
  • Hospitalists
  • Emergency Room (ER) support
  • Intensive Care Unit (ICU) support
  • Pharmacy
  • School health
  • Senior care
  • Infectious disease
  • Pulmonology
  • Cardiology
  • Nephrology
  • SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner)

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine has allowed doctors to use video scopes that attach to an intubating device. The in-person procedure is augmented with telehealth technology.

“When providers are doing a critical intubation to establish an airway for patients, we can peer inside the airway with them and identify the vocal chord and landmarks,” Dr. Skow says. “We are providing through research; when you have that extra support, we can improve the success rate of the intubation procedure.”

The Bottom Line: When to Use Telemedicine

What’s most important to recognize when deciding if telemedicine is right for you is that you are not sacrificing quality; you’re choosing a different patient experience. One method of receiving care may not be better than another; it’s just different. You might find telemedicine visits for counseling services are incredibly effective but prefer to see your primary care doctor if you have stomach problems and need an opinion.

“You’re choosing the type of visit that best meets your needs”, says Dr. Zack. And, you’re not alone in this decision. Your care provider should advise on whether telemedicine or an office visit is necessary.

Experts

Telehealth.com consulted these experts about telemedicine, telehealth, and telecare differences:

Laura Goldstein, therapist and founder of the Montgomery County Counseling Center, Rockville, Md.

Rafael E. Salazar II, MHS, OTR/L and principal owner at Rehab U Practice Solutions, Augusta, Ga.

Brian Skow, M.D., chief medical officer at Avera eCare

Brian Zack, MD, medical director of telehealth for University Hospitals and a pediatrician at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s in Cleveland, Ohio

Talya Miron-Shatz, Ph.D., a consultant, researcher of medical decision-making, and author of “Your Life Depends on It: What You Can Do to Make Better Choices About Your Health.”